Jun 15, 2021

From DARPA to IPO: It’s time to build the U.S. bioeconomy

Biology could drive a global industrial renaissance, built with good jobs, fueled by technology, and led by the U.S, says CSO Zach Serber.

By Zach Serber

Sheeva Haghighat, Technology Product Manager at Zymergen

A few weeks ago, I met virtually with policy makers in DC along with a small group of like-minded synthetic biology companies to talk about growing the U.S.’s bio-industrial manufacturing ecosystem — what we call biofacturing. We were making the case that now is the time to invest in bio-industrial technologies, infrastructure, and workforce to realize the economic promise of industrial biotechnology. In short, I wanted policymakers to know that biofacturing’s potential economic and social impact is tremendous.

In one sense, the conversation brought me full circle: Zymergen has technical origins in the DARPA 1000 Molecules program, a federal program that supported early investment in industrial biotechnology. Back when Josh, Jed, and I were pitching our ideas about making biomaterials with living organisms, synthetic biology was still trying to prove itself fully. Just eight years later, there is real evidence that biofacturing is commercially relevant. What the industry was in need of then was this type of investment in foundational research; what it’s in need of today is investment in infrastructure. The time is now for the government to help accelerate commercial adoption of biofacturing so we can more quickly deliver the solutions of tomorrow. 

Dr. Zach Serber, CSO and co-founder of Zymergen, explained his company’s efforts to marry synthetic biology, machine learning, and materials science to endow microbes with new genetic programs for creating impossible materials with novel and valuable properties. He spoke at DARPA’s “Wait, What? A Future Technology Forum” on Sept. 9, 2015.

A glimpse at the companies that joined me in the meeting gives a sense of just how far we’ve come in taking ideas from the lab into the market:

  • Bolt Threads is working with companies like Adidas, Kering, lululemon, and Stella McCartney to bring its synthetic leather to commercial markets.
  • Checkerspot engineers microalgae to make specialized resins for high-performance sporting goods.
  • Huue makes biosynthetic indigo that could slash toxicity in the $100 billion denim jeans market.
  • And of course, we at Zymergen are making never-before-possible materials in electronics, agriculture, consumer care, and more.

There are great examples of biofacturing in action. But what could real success look like when U.S. industry adopts this kind of innovation on a national scale?

  • We could invent a new generation of materials and chemicals that will in many ways make modern life seem primitive — think personalized medicine, cars that are 50% lighter, and buildings made from upcycled plastic waste.
  • We could build strong, flexible supply chains for the everyday goods we need and the world wants.
  • We could create quality jobs and economic revival across America.
  • And of critical importance, we could see progress in areas like carbon-negative industries and low-emissions farming begin to reverse climate change.
A farmer examines an ear of corn

From increasing crop productivity with fewer inputs to high-performance, high-compostability food packaging materials, biofacturing stands to make a big impact on the food supply chain.

Some recognize it as the start of the synthetic biology revolution. I see it as the beginning of a true bioeconomy that could drive a global industrial renaissance, built with good jobs, fueled by technology, and led by the U.S.

As we shared this vision in Washington, we received a lot of positive feedback. I’m encouraged to see bipartisan support across both the Administration and Congress for the sorts of innovative solutions we are proposing. There is definite backing for developing the U.S. bio-industrial ecosystem, especially when it comes to increasing the U.S.’s competitive edge relative to China. This could be the biggest investment opportunity in our lifetime — both socially and economically.

But we have a ways to go. The United States builds roads, bridges, and other physical infrastructure because we know it drives the economy. We need to do the same for the manufacturing sector. This means doubling down on the education and research foundations that have made the United States the global science and technology leader. It also means investing in infrastructure. For example, Europe has developed a connected network of biomanufacturing facilities to boost its competitiveness and accelerate products in advanced materials, while in the U.S. similar projects are just beginning.

Just five years ago, it might have seemed impossible that auto manufacturers would declare an end to gas-powered cars, or for oil giants to commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But that’s exactly what is happening today. Let’s seize on this kind of bold thinking and apply it to the way we make plastics, fertilizers, medicines, detergents, and the thousand other products that currently come from petrochemicals. Biofacturing can make better products in a better way. With bold national investment, we can build the world’s leading manufacturing infrastructure, with biology as a driving force.

Learn more about biofacturing, how sustainability is a dish best served profitably, and how we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible with biology.